Melissa J. Davies describes the origin story of Pigeon Books, currently Southsea’s tiniest bookshop. It’s a pop-up shop at the moment, and hopes to have a permanent home soon.
Melissa J. Davies describes the origin story of Pigeon Books, currently Southsea’s tiniest bookshop. It’s a pop-up shop at the moment, and hopes to have a permanent home soon.
Phoebe Morgan is an editor at HarperCollins specialising in commercial crime, thrillers and women’s fiction. She is also an author and her first book, The Doll House, will publish from HQ this September.
Sheila O’Reilly is the Events Manager Village Bookshop in Dulwich Village. She is a bookseller with over 18 years’ experience of running bookshops and author event. Passionate about running hugely successful events that customers enjoy she also loves reading well written stories. Here she shares her top tips for running bookshop events.
The Publishers Association numbers show consumer ebook sales have collapsed by 17 per cent, but physical book sales are up by 8 per cent. The media took delight in Amazon bashing – “[The Kindle] was new and exciting,” says Cathryn Summerhayes, of Curtis Brown in the Guardian, “ but now they look so clunky and unhip, don’t they?”. Is this the death of digital? Absolutely not.
Last week I was lucky enough to receive a VIP behind-the-scenes tour of Blackwell’s flagship store in Broad Street, Oxford. The point of the exercise, led by Kate Stilborn, Blackwell’s Customer Service and Operations Director, is to build stronger connections with publishers, in order for all of us to work better together. And sell more books, of course.
I expected a whistle-stop tour, but in fact I was greeted with a full day’s programme, prepared by the shop’s Customer Service Manager, Nicky James, which included meetings with lots of different staff members, and the opportunity to get to grips – literally – with the books themselves. By the time the day ended – with an unexpected fire alarm and al fresco goodbyes – I had aching feet and an even greater appreciation for the dedication and passion of our bookselling colleagues.
So here’s a snapshot of my day at Blackwell’s, plus some – ah – snapshots. (Sorry.)
The first stage on my tour was the Gaffer’s Office, furnished just as it was in Basil Blackwell’s day, and now used as a reminder of former times and as a green room for visiting speakers. But this step back in time is no indicator of the company’s direction of travel. They’re currently in the midst of a Revolution in Customer Service, and they’re in the process of transition to an employee partnership model similar to John Lewis’s.
In an age when online shopping is so easy, Nicky James explained that Blackwell’s is aiming to provide a wonderful customer experience every single time. They have a programme of ‘mystery shops’, leading to feedback on how customers are treated, with an emphasis on learning rather than blame. I love the fact that there’s a box to tick on the mystery shopping questionnaire for ‘moments of delight’ – that moment when a bookseller goes above and beyond the shopper’s expectations.
The theme of autonomy came up again and again during my time at Blackwell’s. In a booklet containing 10 Great Ideas for Giving Outstanding Customer Service, Toby Blackwell gives staff freedom to bend or break the usual rules in pursuit of excellent service – an approach I find outstanding.
After meeting several booksellers from different departments (quite a few of them called James), I found myself in the breathtakingly book-filled Norrington Room, in the care of David Kelly, the store’s Sales Manager. I know this room well from my earlier life in Oxford, but I didn’t know until now that it covers come 10,000 square feet and contains an outrageous three and a half miles of bookshelves.
David also revealed another fact that surprised me, when he told me that the booksellers for each department make their own decisions about what to stock, meeting reps personally and negotiating terms specifically for their lists. My experience of the bookselling world from the publishing side of the net has been one of increasing centralisation and lack of empowerment at the individual shop level, so this was a true surprise for me. Each bookseller organises the displays in their area of the shop with care and attention, and they invite visiting speakers and academics from the university to curate thematic collections – as you can see on the tables in the picture below.
Yes, David agreed when I questioned him on this, it would be more efficient to negotiate with publishers centrally – but the benefits of empowering staff to make their own decisions about which titles to promote and how to promote them cannot be underestimated.
How can we, as publishers, make David’s work easier, I asked. His answer, without hesitation, was that we should stop jumping on bandwagons such as colouring books and children’s book parodies. In his view, it ‘saturates the market and makes books less special’ – it’s like copying another bookshop’s window display: unimaginative and backward-looking. New ideas, please!
I emerged from the bowels of the building into the bright light of the ground floor, the home of fiction from 1960 onwards. I met James Orton, a star of the bookselling team whose love of books positively radiates from him, and I saw just how much freedom the staff have to curate collections of titles, enabling them to share their passions and participate in topical cultural moments.
Eye-catching shelf displays present customers with hand-picked selections of the booksellers’ current favourites – and what really struck me was that booksellers (just like normal booklovers) get just as excited about books published last year, or fifty years ago, as they do about the latest new releases.
I pulled my weight for a short while and earned the right to wear my Bookseller badge by filling a table with books for James’s Dirty Realism display. This is the point where I learned that there are books everywhere in the shop, stacked under tables in orderly piles, and that booksellers are black belts in the art of carrying armfuls of books without bumping into anyone or falling over – fates I narrowly avoided.
After working with Maria, Lorna and Jade in the first floor Literature department, my day ended with a chat over coffee in the café with Beth from Events and Aleida from Sales Development. Blackwell’s run a programme of successful book-related events throughout the year, and they also provide bookshop services for many of the academic conferences that take place in Oxford.
Beth loves hearing from publicists, and it’s a useful reminder to us publishers that we have to stay alert for every promotional opportunity. There are more organisations than we may realise who are keen to meet our authors, and whose audiences are ready to buy their books. If they don’t come knocking on our doors, it’s up to us to make the introductions.
Aleida explained that proof copies are invaluable in building up staff enthusiasm for forthcoming titles – you’ve probably got the message already that the team at Blackwell’s are mad about books, and Aleida told me all the staff read the proofs the shops receives. So it’s worth splashing out on some digital copies of your forthcoming titles if you can find room in your budgets.
What would they like from us, as publishers? Beth and Aleida gave me their wishlist:
Speaking of moments of crisis, our meeting was interrupted at this point by a fire alarm, and I joined book browsers and booksellers in the sunshine on Broad Street for a last chat and goodbye before heading home.
Meeting the staff and seeing behind the scene of one of my all-time favourite bookstores was a treat that I will treasure – and I hope the experiences I’ve shared here have helped to shed a little light on the mysterious world of bookselling that exists between us publishers and those even more mysterious people: the readers.
Many thanks to Kate Stilborn for inviting me, Nicky James for planning the day, plus David, James, Miguel, Maria, Lorna, Jade, Beth and Aleida for sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm!
Abbie Headon has worked in editorial and digital roles at Summersdale Publishers and Oxford University Press, and is now working for a range of publishing clients as Abbie Headon Publishing Services. She’s available for all kinds of publishing projects and spends too much time on Twitter at @abbieheadon.
Each month BookMachine offers a community member, with great ideas, the chance to write on the site. This month, publisher and author of ‘This book is about Heffers’, Julie E Bounford, writes on bookshops and their unique sellers and customers.
The 140-year history of Heffers of Cambridge, demonstrates that bookselling is as much about people as it is about books. As Janette Cross says recently in The Author, bookshops have people who know their customers, who read books and who live in the real world. I couldn’t agree more. People are smarter than algorithms.
In researching, writing and publishing ‘This book is about Heffers’, I interviewed over sixty past and present staff, customers and authors. What stands out about this remarkable bookselling phenomenon of the twentieth century is the character and style of its people.
For example, bookseller, Duncan Littlechild, a pacifist, disapproved of Winston Churchill and would say to customers, “You don’t want to buy that old rogue.” Littlechild began his 54-year career at Heffers in 1903 and was a WW1 prisoner of war. Considered old school by the 1950s – he had a reputation for kowtowing to academics – his favourite customer was the English comedian and character actor, Cyril Fletcher.
It wasn’t just the booksellers who were characters. Author Julian Sedgwick, who worked at Heffers from 1991, fondly recalls the parade of “influential, cosmopolitan, charming, grumpy, famous, notorious, odd and downright weird” customers. He shares his most memorable in the book.
At Heffers many idiosyncrasies were accommodated. In the 1970s the Children’s Bookshop had a big round red seat, on which one adult customer liked to curl up and go to sleep. Another would play the violin in the main bookshop, and yet another would always wear a lifejacket (in Cambridge?). Mr Doggett, who still comes in every week, would stand at the front of the shop yelling the cast names from the 1947 film production of Oliver Twist. Recalling the multitude of interesting and eccentric characters, bookseller David Wilkerson describes bookselling as being ‘edgy’.
It strikes me that characters inhabit all aspects of the book world. We know that a well-told story will feature convincing characters. Unsurprisingly, many authors are themselves notable characters. Indeed, publishing and bookselling is, and always has been, populated by characters. Even the letters that form the words in a book are termed, ‘characters’.
So, where can we find characters in an online world of algorithm dictated bookselling? In a bookshop environment, characters contribute to the essence of the tangible book-buying encounter. Intelligent conversation with a knowledgeable bookseller can lead to rewarding discoveries that no algorithm could discern (and why on earth do the algorithms think that once I’ve bought something, I’ll want to buy exactly the same thing again?).
The book about Heffers is inspired by my childhood memories of visiting Heffers Children’s bookshop every Saturday morning. There was always time during the family routine for choosing books. I wrote about choosing books, living life in 2014 – http://jebounford.net/choosing-books-living-life/
If we stop using bookshops, we’re in danger of losing our connection with bookish people that have real expertise and character.
Who is your most characterful bookseller or customer, and why?
Dr Julie E Bounford hails from a Cambridge ‘town’ stock of booksellers, bakers and college bedders, and lives with her husband, Trevor, in a Cambridgeshire village. Julie spends her time on research and writing, and on running Gottahavebooks, the Bounford’s small indie publishing operation. Julie is the author of ‘This book is about Heffers’, published 21st October 2016. She’s available for talks on the history of Heffers and commissions in social history research and writing. Julie regularly publishes a blog on her website at http://jebounford.net and can be contacted via email@example.com
A new initiative hit the book world this week: BookGig, ‘all the events from the authors you love’.
What’s interesting about that?
Well, it’s one of the few initiatives launched by a publisher (HarperCollins) that isn’t narrowly focused on that publisher’s own lists. ‘Publisher agnostic’, they’re calling it. Which is exactly what readers are, of course. HarperCollins have recognised that to do anything worthwhile they need scale, and to get scale they need comprehensive coverage. (Their reward, apart from the kudos and the opportunity to promote their own events and authors, is of course the contact details of hundreds or thousands of book lovers aka potential future customers.)
It’s also interesting because of the way it zooms in on a key point of differentiation – in a book ecosystem dominated by Amazon’s sheer scale, author events are a blue ocean of opportunity. (BookMachine fans know the value of a good event better than most, of course.) They’re also a win-win-win scenario: for the author, the opportunity to convert readers into raving fans; for publishers and booksellers, the opportunity to sell significant quantities of books; for readers, an experience that gives depth and texture to the book itself.
I’m fascinated by the range of events already featured – not just your traditional author readings and book launches, but book clubs, business breakfasts, workshops, even a walk. The possibilities are infinite: masterclasses, demonstrations, debates, all-night readings, fan fiction competitions, maybe a sneak preview of a new book with the opportunity to contribute or collaborate?
This for me is the most exciting space for publishing in the digital age – brokering not just a transaction but a relationship between author and reader.
Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. www.alisonjones.com.
Chicken and Frog Bookshop is the only independent children’s bookshop in Essex. The family owned and run store opened its doors in October 2012.
We have been book lovers since our childhoods. If you want to be a successful bookseller, passion helps! Lots of it. Over the past four years, we have learnt a great deal about bookselling, so here’s our top tips:
The environment you create is key. It needs to be engaging and easy to navigate. Use shelf talkers, make collections of books, keep your displays fresh.
We change ours weekly if possible. It needs to make people stop and look. If it stays the same, people don’t ‘see’ it anymore.
This is two-fold. Ensure that all staff know where things are – having a change around only works if you can still find the books you’re looking for! And know the books. You can’t make a recommendation if you don’t know what you’re selling.
If a title has been dust collecting for 3 months, it needs to go. That can be really tough, especially if it’s a firm favourite of yours. But, you are not the customer!
This is related to tip 4. You may love obscure Japanese poetry, but if your customers don’t, don’t stock it. This was a lesson that we learnt pretty quickly I can tell you.
If an author or illustrator wants to visit, welcome them with open arms. They are awesome. But, plan carefully. Be ready and let everyone know about the event.
If you want to survive, you need strong relationships with schools. The reality is, schools have very fixed budgets, so you need to show them how important you are! Offer discounts (if you can), curriculum evenings, free stuff (posters, not books!) and, your time.
Support your community and they will support you. We don’t mean by putting your hand in your pocket – booksellers don’t tend to be rich! But, you can offer storytelling, raffle prizes for good causes, put up a poster or share a Tweet. All of these actions help to foster a sense of community and they make you feel good too!
If you’re a bit of a technophobe, you need to get over it. Twitter and Facebook are effective tools for reaching out to people and getting your message across. The majority of our author links are due to being a little bit cheeky via Twitter.
We can’t compete with the big boys on price, but we still need a web presence. If you take a look at our website, it’s not all singing, all dancing. We update recommendations, events page and the blog on a regular basis. Other pages are pretty static, but necessary and easy to navigate. Keep it simple.
Chicken and Frog Bookshop owners, Jim and Natasha Radford, harboured the notion of opening a bookshop for many years, before finally taking the plunge. Jim’s IT background, coupled with Natasha’s teaching career, plus a passion for getting children reading, means that the bookshop is full to the brim with a wide range of books and enthusiasm by the page full.
“As repressed sadists are supposed to become policemen or butchers, so those with an irrational fear of life become publishers.” – Cyril Connolly
Publisher-bashing is a popular sport, particularly for authors. Always has been. We shouldn’t feel too special: we’re in good company along with lawyers, journalists, traffic wardens, estate agents and used-car salesmen as the punch-bag of the dispossessed and disenchanted.
Much of the bile against publishers comes from authors who feel themselves poorly served – either because they didn’t get a deal in the first place or because they found the terms or the treatment less than they’d hoped for.
But just occasionally you get a really interesting, constructive anti-publisher rant that serves the book industry and society well by asking good questions and offering good ideas.
George Monbiot attacked big scholarly publishers – aka ‘parasitic overlords’ – in an influential Guardian article in 2011.
Hugh Howey put the boot into big trade publishers with his Don’t Anyone Put Me In Charge post in 2014.
And Seth Godin did it this week on The Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast. He’s an author, of course, but he spent his early career as a book packager, so he has more industry insight than most.
Here are three of the charges he levels at publishers:
‘In [Unleashing the Ideavirus], I gave the advice that ideas that spread, win, and that an idea that’s not bounded by paper, is going to spread faster. How could I publish this as a traditional book?
I went to my book publisher, I said, “Here’s the deal. I’d like to publish this book, but a) I need you to bring it out in 90 days, and b) I want to give it away for free, online.”
They said, “We’d love to publish your next book, but we’re not going to do it in 90 days, and you can’t give it away for free, online.”
I made the bold decision to take my own advice, and I refused to take this book and do anything commercial with it. Instead, I just put the entire book for free, online. 3,000 people downloaded it the first day, 4,000 people the second day. By the end of a couple months, it was in the millions.
Then I started getting email from people that said, “We hate reading this in a PDF. Where’s the book?”
Because I had a background as a book packager, I know how to make a book. In three weeks, we turned it into a hard-cover, sold it only on Amazon, and it went to number 5 on the Amazon bestseller list, a book that we gave away, and that cost $40 in the year 2000.’
‘You would think that [publishers] are in the tree business or the paper business, the way they behave. They value paper books more than they value the spread of ideas… they think of the world in the scarcity model of paper. Once you get rid of that model, the opportunity for a book publisher is huge, because now, it’s true, anyone can publish their ideas, but very few people can curate them, and very few people have the wherewithal to promote them. The idea that an institution of people with good taste and resources, could find ideas on Monday, edit them on Wednesday, and promote them on Friday, is astonishing, but they’re just walking away from that and leaving it on the table.’
‘The giant cultural problem of western book publishers is, they think their customer is the bookstore… Since that’s your customer, that’s who you wake up in the morning, seeking to serve… I have discovered over time that the single best way for a book to spread, is for one reader to hand it to another reader.’
You might feel some of this is unfair, but you have to admit much of it hits home.
Publishers themselves would probably be the first to admit that as an industry, we’re not known for our responsive, risk-taking, entrepreneurial hustle. And to be fair, I see more and more publishers engaging directly with their readers – I’d like to think we’re making progress in this area at least.
But there’s much thoughtful criticism here that should challenge us. Do a quick audit: what risk-taking are you currently engaged in, and how are you learning from it? What opportunities are others seizing in your field from under your nose? What are you doing to connect directly with your readers and inspire them to share their love of your authors’ books?
And if you’re lucky enough to have one of those imaginative, challenging, high-maintenance authors on your list, make the most of them. Listen to what they’ve got to say and think about how you can support their ideas.
You might hit a home run, it might not work. But if you never try you’ll never know, until your author gets tired of not being heard and goes and gets the home run off their own bat, proving one again that if you want to innovate, you have to part company with your publisher.
Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. www.alisonjones.com.
Kate Cygan and Michael Wray are an entrepreneurial minded couple with insatiable reading habits. They recently moved to Denver, CO and are working on visiting every single coffee shop the city has to offer. Lifelong creatives, they both write and paint in their free time. You can check out Read Dog online at www.readdog.com, on Instagram and on Facebook.
Read Dog is a monthly book curation service. We send monthly book boxes with books chosen specifically for individual readers. Every box is unique, hand-packed, and personalized.
Each of our boxes include a book (or sometimes books), notes on what’s new with Read Dog, and bookish items. Last month we included markers, crayons, a hand-bound notebook, a Read Dog coloring page, a ruler, and a ton of starburst candies. Check out our past boxes here: http://read.dog/past-boxes
In addition, we’re building a book-centered community to discuss novels, non-fiction, and short stories as well as book-relevant news. For now, we are creating a Facebook community for our Read Dog readers where we connect our readers with other bookish people, authors, and new books!
We hope to build a the largest online book community in the world.
To start, we are learning what books people love, want, and re-gift to loved ones once they’re done. But the ultimate goal of Read Dog is to make sure that readers everywhere feel less lonely by connecting them with their book soulmates. Part of this goal includes making sure readers always have a book in their hand that challenges them and gives them a new perspective.
For now, we are guaranteeing an end to the re-reading conundrum where, as one of our subscribers described, you’re stuck “in a re-reading loop and unable to choose a new book.” We guarantee a new book, every month, that you’ve never read before.
We cater to readers everywhere. Though most of our readers have been reading since childhood and want something new, we have a couple of very young readers (one newborn even!). We have a fair number of parents buying boxes for their children and also children buying boxes for their parents which we love!
We just quit our full-time jobs to focus on growing our business and brand, which makes this one of the most exciting and nerve-racking periods of our lives. Luckily, we are seeing results!
Over the past couple of months we’ve doubled our subscribers. Now we need to find a way to maintain our current growth while keeping in touch with the personalized aspect that makes Read Dog such an incredible service.
Our goal is to build a community of 1,000 readers by the end of 2017. Wish us luck!
We’re definitely going to have to be innovative in our solutions as we grow. We’re currently working on some custom “book playlists” for our readers that we know will be huge hits and will help us scale.
In the meantime, we also need to find a way to feed ourselves so may be doing some cross-promotions with local authors and bookshops. But for now, we are hyper-focused on delighting our customers.
Small independent publishers and self-published authors need to maximize the impact of their books and ensure they are easily found on the Internet. Ralph Möllers, the founder of a children’s publisher based in German decided to develop his own book widget, Book2Look, that would enable book buyers, both trade and consumer, to look inside the book before they purchase. The Internet makes content readily available for free. Ralph felt by offering easily digestible free content as a hook would encourage readers to want to read on and most importantly to click ‘buy’. Making the point of discovery the point of purchase.
As a starting point before any book campaign, publishers should think about whom their current readers are and what is happening in the marketplace. Here are some of Ralph Möllers’ latest observations, together with how this led to the development and continuing enhancement of the Book2Look widget.
According to BBC research, young people now spend an average of three hours online a day. This seems quite a conservative estimate really, and professionals must spend more than double this amount. Tech savvy millenials are wise to advertising and many use ad blockers to protect them from the ‘lure’ of online shopping ads, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated. According to eMarketer, about a quarter of all U.S. internet users, nearly 70 million people will use technology to block online ads in 2016. Publishers therefore need to develop respectful ways of promoting to these readers, as a result of this. Nielsen Book2Look is therefore an ideal option that lets you share sample content, video, audio clips and other promotional material via the internet on social media sites, on your own site, author site or with retailers, bloggers and reviewers. Each version can be tailored to meet your audience needs.
Despite books such as the Cursed Child by JK Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, which achieve huge sales, shelf space for the average book in traditional book stores has been decreasing and this makes discoverability of new books extremely difficult for publishers. Author James Patterson launched an admirable initiative to help indie bookshops survive and thrive – however, in the UK in 2014, almost twice as many bookshops closed down as new ones opened. Between 2009 and 2016*, the number of independent booksellers in the UK and Ireland, has fallen by 25%. With fewer options to browse books in-stores, publishers need to replicate the ability to browse books online, and that’s where Nielsen Book2Look can help you reach a wider audience for your books.
Trends in Social Media usage are changing. Many Facebook users have migrated to Instagram or Twitter away from parental observation. Groups of friends prefer to communicate via closed groups on Path or What’s App. Professional networks such as Yammer give work colleagues a valid reason to chat online. Nothing remains constant but the one thing all forms of social media have in common is that they give their users the opportunity to share. Nielsen Book2Look lets your readers share sample content. It gives them a valid reason to communicate on their preferred social channels, and you can add a link to your preferred retailer, ensuring that you achieve sales.
Nielsen Book2Look is a tool that encourages readers to share and spread the word about the books they like. A tool that supports your local retailer by offering customised sample content. And lastly but not least, it’s a tool that gives you great analytical data about the performance of your book content that can be connected to your existing Google analytics account.
Today Nielsen Book2Look is helping thousands of publishers of all sizes worldwide to promote and sell their books. Nielsen Book2Look has achieved millions of book views, last year the figure was 20m, and we expect that to increase this year. Ralph Möllers says: “As a developer and as a publisher I am really proud of this contribution to our industry and I am delighted that so many publishers around the world can take advantage of this remarkable book widget. Even better news is that Nielsen Book has launched its new ISBN Store which enables publishers not only to purchase their ISBNs online but the Book2Look widget too – what could be simpler than that?”
*2016 is seeing a number of new independent bookshops starting up, which might lead to a resurgence of high street retailing, but this is still a hugely competitive market with customers being offered a huge of point of purchase.
Long considered nothing more than a gimmicky fad, it turns out that augmented reality (AR) is actually alive and well. At least that’s the case when it’s associated with a brand as large as Pokemon.
By now you’ve undoubtedly heard all the Pokemon Go stories and maybe you’ve even dodged a player or two, overly-focused on their phone while embarking on a virtual hunting expedition. On the surface it’s nothing more than another time-wasting game but I believe it offers some very important lessons for publishers.
Let’s start with the hybrid, print-plus-digital opportunity. Recent reports indicate ebook sales have plateaued and growth has shifted back to the print format. There are a number of underlying reasons for these trends including higher ebook prices as well as the adult coloring book phenomenon. But as I’ve said before, publishers need to stop thinking about print and digital as an either/or proposition. Some customers prefer print while others lean towards digital. Many readers are in both camps, switching between print and digital based on genre, pricing, convenience, etc.
Stop and think about how something like Layar could be used to bring your static pages to life. Maybe you publish how-to guides, print is your dominant format and you’ve always wondered how you could integrate videos with the text. You’ve tried inserting urls but very few readers bother typing them in. QR codes are an option but they’re clunky and take up precious space on the page. Why not use AR to virtually overlay those videos on the page without having to dump in a bunch of cryptic-looking urls or QR codes?
Are you looking to engage your readers in the book’s/author’s social stream? Here’s your chance to integrate them virtually using a platform like Layar.
Better yet… have you always wanted to know who all those nameless, faceless consumers are who bought your print book from third-party retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble? Here’s an opportunity as a publisher or author to initiate a conversation directly with your readers. Add an Easter egg to the print edition where readers can receive a reward via an AR-powered offer; you will, of course, ask for each reader’s name and email address before handing out those rewards.
This approach to marrying digital to print is totally unobtrusive. Print readers who don’t want to bother with their phones can continue reading the book without interruption. Those customers interested in learning more, interacting with authors or uncovering special publisher offers will likely see the value of connecting their phones with the printed page.
The possibilities are endless. So the next time you see a Pokemon Go player wandering aimlessly be sure to thank them for helping identify new ways of distributing, promoting and enriching content.
Joe Wikert is director of strategy and business development at Olive Software. This post was originally published on his blog, ‘Joe Wikert’s Digital Content Strategies‘, where he writes opinion pieces on the rich content future of publishing.
Bookspeed specialise in building the perfect range of books and gifts for retailers. Lewis Dawson is Commercial Director and is responsible for all buying and procurement operations, and overseeing the management of commercial activities across the business. He works closely with Bookspeed’s Sales Director, Fiona Stout, to expand the product portfolio enabling the company to forward into an exciting period of diversification and expansion.
Bookspeed has been providing bespoke ranges of books for over three decades for a wide variety of retailers in the UK Gift and Heritage markets. Our customers range from stately homes to design led gift retailers. In recent years we have extended our range building service to include toys and gifts in with our book ranges.
Buying books is hard. There are hundreds of publishers, producing thousands of books all year round. We use our expert knowledge of the book trade to create highly individual ranges that form a key part of our customers’ retail offer. As an independently owned business, without any allegiances to specific publishers or producers, we are the only genuinely impartial specialist wholesaler in the UK. This means our only incentive is to provide our customers with the best advice and suggestions to maximise their sales, and in turn ours.
There are two really strong collections at the moment in the Gift market, one is “Parody Humor” made popular by the phenomenally successful “Ladybird Books for Grown Ups” series. We sold over a quarter of a millions units of this series alone! This year we have more in the Ladybird series, but also parodies of the Famous Five books that we are expecting to do very well. Our other strong collection is, of course, Adult Colouring. This is a trend that has been popular for a couple of years but in 2015 it reached a crescendo. It is still a strong trend, but we are finding that consumers are looking for the more unusual or quirky colouring titles, rather than the big designer names like Joanna Basford and Millie Marotta. One of our most popular Adult colouring titles this year has been the “Passive Aggressive Colouring Book”
Our Account Managers, one of which every customer has dedicated to their account, all have a great eye for design and retail layout. Many have experience in retail themselves. These skills are used to build the ranges of books that we offer our customers, however there is no reason to limit the use of these skills only to ranges of books. Expanding our product portfolio allows our creative Account Managers to use their range building skills with more products, encouraging more cross merchandising and driving sales for our customers. We are careful to choose which partners we work with when bringing in new products on board, we want to make sure all new products we add into the business complement those we currently sell. We want suppliers to have a story to tell, not just a collection of products they want to flog!
One thing we have found is that we are increasingly becoming a key supplier for many of our customers as their business with us grows. This means there is much greater scrutiny on our performance and the service that our customers receive. Ensuring that our high standards are maintained whilst growing quickly can be challenging, but we have an excellent team here and I’m confident we’ll continue to rise to the challenge.
Earlier this month WHSmith launched Zoella’s Book Club in partnership with blogger and vlogger Zoe. Here Norah Myers interviews Amy Alward, one of the eight authors to be included in the Summer 2016 collection.
Zoe’s always been passionate about reading, and the WHSmith book club is the perfect way to share that passion with her viewers.
It’s incredible! I think those in industries who have worked with major YouTubers before, like fashion and beauty, will find it no surprise to see the uplift in sales. They’ve known the power of social media stars for a long time. But, for books, this is something completely new. For so long, YA publishers have been debating the best ways to reach real teens in the UK and beyond, without the benefit of a movie or TV show. Zoe is putting reading back on the teen radar in a BIG way.
I’m not sure! I’m very excited to see what she picks in upcoming book clubs – her taste so far has been spot on and even I’ve discovered some recommendations that have gone straight on my TBR pile.
So far, it’s been amazing seeing the reaction to the book club and the level of interaction during the online events. I hope that continues right the way through September, when the vote for the ‘favourite book’ is counted. As for beyond, I hope that the book club continues to shine a light on authors that otherwise would not be getting the attention they deserve, introducing more awesome and diverse authors to new readers. There is so little coverage of children’s books in general in the UK, especially not in places that will be seen by teenagers. This is an amazing opportunity to spread a love of reading far and wide!
Thank you so much. For me – of course, I’m blown away by seeing the jump in sales and by the hundreds of messages I’ve received from new readers discovering the series. All I know is that I have many more stories and adventures for Sam Kemi to go on, so I hope it gives me the opportunity to write even more books in The Potion Diaries series!
Amy Alward is a Canadian author and freelance editor who divides her time between the UK and Canada. In 2013, she was listed as one of The Bookseller’s Rising Stars. Her debut fantasy adventure novel, The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, was published in 2013 under the name Amy McCulloch and was longlisted for the 2014 Branford Boase Award for best UK debut children’s book. Her first book written as Amy Alward, The Potion Diaries, was an international success and the second novel in the series, The Potion Diaries: Royal Tour will be published in August 2016. She is currently travelling the world, researching more extraordinary settings and intriguing potions for the third book in the series. She lives life in a continual search for adventure, coffee, and really great books. Visit her at AmyAlward.co.uk or on Twitter @Amy_Alward.
The news came recently that ReaderLink has purchased Anderson News. Those two companies have been the leading suppliers of books to the mass merchandisers: primarily Wal-mart, Target, and Sam’s Club. There are other players selling books in the space, including Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and smaller distributors like the less-well-known American West. But most of the books going to most of the mass merchant accounts have gotten there through what will now be one company supplying them: ReaderLink.
By my count, that puts four companies in the book business who have extraordinarily powerful holds on their space. They are ReaderLink (in the supply of books to mass merchants), Amazon (as an online retailer), Barnes & Noble (as a bricks-and-mortar retailer) and Penguin Random House (as a commercial trade publisher).
ReaderLink, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble now have extraordinarily powerful positions from which to demand better terms from their publisher-suppliers. In all three cases, they have customer bases which are extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a competitor to take away from them.
Amazon has pretty much owned the online book customer since the year they opened for business in 1995. There is a faint hope that fragmentation of the online marketplace and the placement of commerce in the social stream, such as is enabled by Ingram’s Aer.io technology, could wrest some of their share. Perhaps, over time, that will happen. But they keep pulling further ahead of their only real competition, BN.com, and I am not aware of even one single reporting period when Amazon’s share of the online book market hasn’t grown. It is simply not an option for a publisher who wants to sell to consumers to avoid Amazon. (The only way a publisher could conceivably do that is if their customer base is reached entirely by direct sales or through intermediaries outside the book business.)
Barnes & Noble may be losing brick-and-mortar market share to independents, but they remain by far the leading bookstore chain. If a publisher wants books in the retail marketplace, Barnes & Noble has been, since the demise of Borders five years ago, the only one-stop way to get national coverage. In fact, they almost certainly control the majority of bookstore shelf space in the country, and their single biggest competitor, Books-a-Million, has fewer than half as many stores. And B-a-M’s stores are smaller.
ReaderLink is now in a similar position vis a vis the mass merchants. These stores constitute the other big component of the store retailing system and they are critical for bestsellers, mass-market paperbacks, and “merchandise” like adult coloring books and kids books. In fact, ReaderLink and Anderson lived with what was a “managed competition” controlled by their accounts; they each had stores assigned to them by their mass merchant customers. Publishers have always had to deal with both of them in order to place their books in the mass accounts. And, indeed, it could be that there will be efficiencies to this consolidation that will be beneficial for the publishers. But, if there are, it is also quite likely that ReaderLink will find ways to adjust their terms to take at least some of the benefits back and they are likely to be successful persuading publishers to allow that. (They have also manifestly strengthened their negotiating position with those accounts that are committed to stocking books.)
There is a fourth powerful player: Penguin Random House. PRH is almost (but not quite) the size of the other four members of the Big Five combined. As such, they are in a position to do things in the marketplace that no other publisher could contemplate. Since the merger of Penguin and Random House, I’ve written about what they uniquely could do with their marketplace power. The two key suggestions, neither of which has drawn any evident interest from the management at PRH, were a program to supply non-bookstores with vendor-managed inventory (creating store retail accounts nobody else would have) and to create their own ebook subscription service. (That would also create unique distribution.)
The new combination in mass-merchant supply could suggest another such opportunity. Perhaps this one will be more compelling.
The supply of books to mass merchants, as to any account that is not primarily in the book business and comfortable with both the logistical challenges and relatively low profit potential in books, is complicated, expensive, and usually inefficient. The number of titles that actually make it into these stores is a paltry percentage of the industry’s output. Only the biggest publishers have enough of the right books to really play.
And then the publisher has to cover both the retail accounts that will ultimately sell their books and the distributor-intermediary that supplies them. It will be a bit easier for the big publishers selling books to Wal-mart and Target to manage the business through one big account rather than two (one fewer account to deal with), but it is still a frustratingly inefficient segment of the business. (The one fewer account aspect of this is bound to be causing some nervousness right now in the sales departments of some publishers.) Visibility into inventory status is, relative to the store-level view available at Barnes & Noble, klunky. Returns are high. Responsiveness to breaking events is slow. And the margins are worse than for any other part of the domestic business.
But part of the reason for that is that delivering on the service requirements for these accounts is expensive. One sales executive I spoke to estimated that ReaderLink has more than 2500 detail people calling on the outlets of the mass merchants: checking stock, tidying fixtures, and replacing sold books. No wonder these distributors need hefty margins to do this work. And this also explains why Ingram and Baker & Taylor, who, of course, carry all the titles these merchants would ever need, don’t appear to move aggressively to take this business away from the incumbent(s).
To picture the Penguin Random House options, I try to view this from the perspective of one publisher with about half the books that these mass merchant accounts need. I’m giving away margin to a middle player that adds a layer of inefficiency and cost in order to be an effective aggregator. Obviously, the accounts want that aggregator. They don’t want to deal with hundreds of publishers individually, or even with just each of the Big Five. It would be a non-starter for a publisher supplying five or ten or even twenty percent of their books to say: “can we work out a way to do this directly?” So just about everybody has to accept the inefficiency.
But what about if it were a supplier that provided half the books? And what if that supplier offered, as an opening gambit, to share some of the margin that now goes to the middle player directly with the account? And what if that effectively became the account’s only way to get those books, because the powerful publisher was no longer willing to play ball with the high discounts and high returns that the current system entails?
Only Penguin Random House is in a position to take this approach. And it wouldn’t be an easy thing to do. They’d have to create a VMI system. They’d have to organize a detailing army quite different from the sales force(s) they have created and managed historically. They’d have to either gear themselves up to execute more smaller shipments or form alliances that would make that possible. But the payoffs would also be substantial. And PRH has a much bigger margin share to support their efforts than ReaderLink, or any other wholesaler or distributor, would have.
Sales would go up. Returns would go down. Margins would improve. Their competitors would be weakened. In fact, it is conceivable that, over time, a PRH direct-supply operation could morph into a ReaderLink service that was available to other publishers as well. (All big publishers, including PRH, already offer their core distribution services to competitors. This would be a variation on that theme.)
Perhaps Penguin Random House will never behave in a qualitatively different way than the other Big Five houses, exercising power that they uniquely have. They certainly haven’t so far. On the other hand, it was pointed out to me recently that the integration of what were the two biggest publishers among the Big Six when Random House and Penguin combined four years ago is, even today, not yet complete. Rationalization has occurred in the “back end”, with the consequent job losses which are part of the payoff for the owners in any big merger of this kind. But more consolidation is still in front of them, and perhaps the radical paradigm-shifting initiatives need to wait until that job is really done.
And perhaps Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and now ReaderLink are wary of poking the bear, and are less demanding that PRH honor their primacy with margin than they are of PRH’s competitors. In fact, the CEO of one of their Big Five competitors told me a year or two ago that he liked having a competitor of PRH’s size on the publisher side because this executive felt it kept the overall industry terms under control. The belief on this CEO’s part was that PRH’s size restrained the big accounts to the benefit of all the big players.
But unlike Amazon or Barnes & Noble, whose businesses can not be efficiently replaced by any direct effort, the supply of mass merchant accounts is something PRH could conceivably do better on their own. Whether the acquisition of Anderson by ReaderLink provides the catalyst to get them to try it is something it will probably take a couple of years to find out.
Although Ingram occupies a unique position in the global book supply chain and, indeed, might be the single most important player, they aren’t in the position of these other four to exercise power. In wholesaling, they have always had a powerful national competitor, Baker & Taylor, which is now even more financially stable having itself been acquired by Follett. Even in smaller-publisher distribution, where Ingram grew dramatically by acquiring Perseus, they will always have all the big publishers and a host of smaller distributors as alternatives for those considering their services. Indeed, Ingram could try to compete with ReaderLink for the mass merchant accounts, but they’d have to support the substantial systems and staff investments on a distribution margin, which is a much more challenging proposition than it would be for PRH with the publisher’s margin.
Mike Shatzkin has been in publishing since 1962. Since 1979, Mike has been an independent consultant (The Idea Logical Company) with clients that have included most major publishers in the US and UK, retailers including Barnes & Noble and Borders, wholesalers including Ingram, and a host of tech startups. You can follow him on Twitter @MikeShatzkin. This post was originally posted on The Idea Logical Company blog in May 2016.
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